Q. A Jacksonville Today reader, Bob K., wanted us to dispel the frequent claim that Jacksonville is the biggest city in the U.S.
A. We looked into it, and here’s what we found: It all depends.
Although people often claim Jax is the biggest city in the lower 48 states, the truth is a bit muddier.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Jacksonville does not have the largest land area in the lower 48. That distinction belongs to the unified government of Greeley County in western Kansas, on the border with Colorado.
The city of Tribune and Greeley County merged in 2009 to form a unified government with a land area of 777.41 square miles. Jacksonville has a land area of 747.26 square miles.
But the thing about land area is, it does not take water into consideration. So when adding the amount of water in both locations, Jacksonville is larger.
The Census Bureau says Greeley County has no bodies of water while Jacksonville has 127.19 square miles, including the massive St. Johns River. That gives Jacksonville a total area of 874.46 square miles while Greeley County has 777.41 square miles.
In the end, Greeley County is the largest community in the lower 48 states by land area. Jacksonville is the largest by total area. And neither is the biggest in the U.S. Four cities in Alaska — Sitka, Wrangell, Juneau and Anchorage — are bigger.
Jacksonville’s city government obviously considers its size to be a matter of pride. When describing itself in news releases, the city has long said it is “the largest city by land mass in the contiguous United States” — a claim that appears to be a bit off.
Either way, what matters more — land area or total area? Well, that depends too.
Billie Ventimiglia, senior planner at Florida State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, said having a lot of land area is important because it allows communities to know where to build or grow things. But the role of water is important too, Ventimiglia said.
“For the total area, again, in Jacksonville, the river is vitally important and we know we’re developing along the river and things like that. So I think it’s just a difference of how you want to use it” — total area versus land area, Ventimiglia said.
Bottom line: Yes, Jacksonville is the largest city in the lower 48 states by total area. But only if you include the water.